Chile is an incredibly long and narrow country, with it reaching just 150 miles at its widest point, and has everything from mountains to beaches to vineyards to explore. However, I really feel its capital city, Santiago, is very much underestimated. It’s just not one of the first places you think of when you head to South America, and possibly not even the first place to spring to mind when you think of Chile. And to be brutally honest, I hadn’t given it much thought either.
But what I found was actually a beautiful and diverse city with tonnes of history and culture. From nearly every point in the city, you can catch glimpses of the majestic Andes and other beautiful hills nearby. There’s definitely more to Chile’s capital than meets the eye and plenty of budget-friendly ways to see it!
Visas – No visa is required to enter Chile for UK passport holders as long as you are not staying for longer than 90 days. If you want to stay for longer than you will have to go through the embassy and follow the regulations outlined there.
Money – The local currency is the Chilean Peso (CLP) and at the time of writing this, £1 = 842 CLP, so it’s not the easiest conversion rate to be working out on the spot! Make sure you download the XE app before you set out exploring to make sure you’re not getting ripped off.
From the airport to centre – The Santiago International Airport is 15 km away from the city centre and there are a number of buses that run to it. Centropuerto offers a budget bus service that runs every 10 minutes and stops near a number of metro services, along with TurBus which runs buses every 20 minutes. It’s important to note that none of the bus services run 24 hours but there will be taxis available if you need it.
Santiago is fairly walkable but it can get seriously hot, so thankfully it has a decent metro and bus system. There are 5 lines that run all over the city and you will need to buy a Bip! Card to use them. There is a minimum top up amount of 1000 CLP (about £1.20) that can be done at the metro stations or corner shops with the Bip! Logo displayed. To save a little bit of money, multiple people can use one card as long as there’s enough money on there to cover everyone’s journey.
Cheap and Free Things to do in Santiago
Admire the architecture
Santiago is a well-developed and growing city full of a combination of skyscrapers and beautiful almost European-esque style buildings. Spend time just wandering around the streets, parks and Plazas to soak in some of the beauty.
Do A Free walking tour
I ALWAYS do a free walking tour when I visit a new city, and this was no exception. Check out Tours4Tips who offer a fantastic tour around all the main sites of the city. I loved their tour so much that I actually booked onto their ‘Santiago Offbeat’ tour which shows Chile from a local’s perspective, exploring everything from the markets to the street music keeping the city moving. You can’t miss these guys who run the tours- they’re dressed in red and white striped where’s Wally tops! They’re incredibly knowledgeable and love Santiago so make sure you ask lots of questions!
Learn about its history
Whenever I put this into a guide I always worry that you guys are going to think I’m really keen on history and as dry as a piece of old boot. But I really do feel it helps a lot to learn about what a place and what it’s people have been through to understand why it is how it is now. For Santiago, I feel this is especially important as it’s horrifically recent. Between 1973-1990 Augusto Pinochet led a military coup which resulted in thousands of Chileans being tortured or executed and you can see that this still impacts people’s lives today. Keep reading to find out about a fantastic free museum in the city to commemorate those who were affected or lost their lives during this period.
Climb Cerro Santa Lucia
This hill right in the centre of Santiago offers a fantastic all-round view of the city. It’s full of monuments and beautiful architecture, including the bright yellow Neptune Fountain at one of the entrances. It’s a bit of a steep walk in some places but it’s worth it and a great place to take a picnic.
Visit San Cristobal hill
This is the second highest hill in Santiago and one of my favourite spots. The gardens are beautiful and you can’t miss the towering statue of the Virgin Mary. Spend time wandering around admiring the panoramic views this site offers. There are snack bars at the top also, or if you really want to spend some time there, you can swing by the Chilean National Zoo that sits half way up! There used to be a cable car to take you up the hill but it has been closed indefinitely, so it’s another walk to the top.
Explore the Barrios
Barrios are the neighbourhoods in Santiago. There are 26 of them in total and you can really see the different cultures and styles that inhabit the city so it’s a great way to get a real feel for the place. Barrio Bellavista is a street art haven and is a great place to head at night, Brazil & Yungay have a cool laid back and local atmosphere as well as amazing street art, and the Italian-esque Lastarria is packed with local cafes and bars.
Visit the local Parks
Santiago is known for its green spaces dotted throughout. There are so many parks to visit but I absolutely love the huge trees in Park Forestal and Parque Metropolitano located on a hill with beautiful botanical gardens, a zoo, restaurants and plenty of picnic space.
Explore La Plaza de Armas
This is the main square in Santiago from which the rest of the city is laid out in a grid. The name translates to ‘square of weapons’ and is home to many of the government buildings so, in the event of an attack, they could be protected. As with everywhere similar to this, there are tonnes of restaurants and cafes but they will be far more expensive than eating further away. The stunning Metropolitan Cathedral, Central Post Office, Royal Palace and National History Museum are all located here and are all free to go into.
Get lost in El Cementerio General
Yes, that’s right, I’m recommending visiting a cemetery. Cemeteries are seen as parks here, and this one is the size of 117 football pitches. But it’s time to throw any squeamish western concepts out the window, because death is viewed very differently here, and throughout much of Latin America I believe. The site is full of extravagant Mausoleums and beautiful memorials and is the resting site for many known high powered Chileans, including 2 presidents. Lots of Chileans believe in the afterlife and will come back to the grave on the anniversary of the death to lay flowers and reconnect with their loved ones.
visit the Museum of Memory and Human Rights
I don’t mind a museum, but I don’t often properly recommend one as I just think there’s more to life, but for me, this one was well worth a visit. The Memory Museum commemorates the victims of the human rights violation that took place under Pinochet’s regime. It’s not an easy place to visit but it’s incredibly moving and a real eye-opener. It’s always important that these people and what they went through are not forgotten. It has free entry so there really is no reason to not go.
Check out the Markets
Mercado Central is Santiago’s famous market, unsurprisingly, in the centre of the city. It’s inside an iron building and has loads of food stalls so it’s a great place to taste some local wine and seafood. Another great market to experience is La Vega Central market, just around the corner from Mercado Central so it’s easy to visit both. La Vega is (also unsurprisingly) a fruit and vegetable market and it’s perfect for a light lunch and some fresh juice. Both are a real feast for the senses and the stomach!
Snack on the Street Food
None of these are good for your waistline but they sure are delicious. As with pretty much everywhere in South America, Empanadas are a must try. Given Chile’s huge coastline it’s unsurprising that you can find seafood ones as well as meat and vegetable ones. Chilean’s also have their own twist on the American hot dog called Completos, but instead of mustard or ketchup on top, it’s mayo, tomato and avocado. If you’re fancying something deep fried and either sweet or savoury, then a Sopaipillas (deep fried dough) is a good shout. They are topped with either a sugary sauce and cinnamon or cheese or a salsa if that’s more your thing. Street food is always a good cheap option and these are perfect for when you’re on the go.
Enjoy the local drinks
No ‘things to do’ list about Chile could be complete without mentioning wine. Chile is, of course, famous for its vineyards so what better place to try some Chilean Sauvignon Blanc straight from the area. A (few) Pisco Sour is also an absolute must – they’re lethal but bloody delicious!